By Michael Langone, Ph.D.
Families usually seek information from us because they have a loved one involved in what they think might be a cult or related group that concerns them. (Sometimes an entire family has been in a group or the loved one is out of the group.
Although getting information on the group in question has utility, it is usually at least as important to understand the processes that underlie group involvements.
Don’t jump to conclusions and don’t succumb to the allure of simple answers. Do not rely upon popular accounts of “cults,” although these can sometimes provide useful background information. If you want to be informed, you must read a lot more than a handful of newspaper or magazine articles. You should talk to a variety of people with relevant knowledge. And you must think things through carefully.
When you talk to other families who have had a cult involvement, learn from them, but do not overlook the uniqueness of your own situation and don’t let their confidence or fervor cause you to overgeneralize from their cases to yours. Each case of group involvement is a unique interaction of a complex personality and a complex environment.
Ask yourself this central question: “Let’s assume that your loved one is not in a “cult”; what if any behaviors would trouble you?” If nothing troubles you, then you might consider reexamining your assumption that the group is or might be harmful to your loved one and take a closer look at your own motivation (maybe you merely disapprove of your loved one’s leaving the family’s religion, for example). If you do identify troubling behaviors, try to determine if these behaviors are at least in part a function of what goes on in the group. This approach enables you to focus on harmful psychological influences without getting bogged down in a debate about whether the group is or is not a “cult.” Groups are very different; most large groups exhibit differences among their various local organizations; and people respond differently to similar environments. Tagging a label on the group is secondary to determining whether or not psychologically manipulative or abusive practices are harming your loved one.
Keep in mind that a group member’s behavior is a function of his/her unique personality and identity and what goes on in the group. Do not make the mistake of assuming that your loved one is a helpless pawn. Cultic environments can be powerful, but they are not all-powerful.
Because the majority of group members, even those in very controlling groups, eventually leave their groups, a concerned family’s primary role is often to facilitate a departure that may eventually happen anyway. In many cases families seeking expert consultation may be able to help their loved one a great deal without attempting an exit counseling or other kind of intervention. Sometimes families can pursue a conflict resolution strategy that makes for an improved relationship with their loved one, even if he or she does not leave the group. Although we respect a family’s fear that their loved one either may never come out of a cultic situation or may be gravely damaged if the family does nothing, we caution against hasty actions. Except in emergency situations, it is advisable to take the time to educate oneself and assess your situation thoroughly before acting.
Even though there may be times when families may feel justifiably helpless, their situation is rarely hopeless. So many factors influence a person’s relationship to a group that even those of us who have worked in this field for years regularly encounter pleasant surprises. So don’t give up hope. Beneficial changes in your loved one may occur because of events that have nothing to do with your actions (e.g., a growing disillusionment with the group; an accumulation of small grievances against leaders; dissension within the group). Some group members achieve enough independence from their group to maintain or reestablish a respectful and loving relationship with their family, even though they may remain group members. Remember, people are different and will respond in different ways to the same group environment, which itself can change over time.
Take advantage of the many resources that are now available for families, including those available through ICSA. We advise people seeking professional consultation to investigate options to make sure that they feel comfortable with a particular person.
Sometimes state psychological, medical, or professional associations maintain referral lists for the public. Even though few professionals have much expertise with cultic groups, many can be helpful, particularly if they have worked with family systems or abused populations and if they are willing to learn about cult-related issues.